Remember when Microsoft didn't allow Xbox Live Arcade games to exceed 50 megabytes in size? Look no further than "Shadow Complex" to see how far the downloadable service has come. It's one of the most ambitious downloadable games to date and, more importantly, it revitalizes the side-scrolling exploration/action genre that once remained exclusive to the realm of the retro classics.
At first glance, the well-choreographed cut-scenes and Unreal Engine 3 graphics indicate a polished and well-developed story, but the fiction of "Shadow Complex" could not be blander. The "ex-soldier begrudgingly has to fight once again" and "infiltrate a rogue military facility to unravel a conspiracy to overthrow the government" scenarios don't hold the emotional weight they once did. You'll be perfectly fine going into "Shadow Complex" expecting to have fun and not get too absorbed in an enthralling narrative.
Evidently, Chair Entertainment loves "Super Metroid." The power-ups, puzzles, constant backtracking and 2-D map represented by a grid of squares all feel lifted straight out of Nintendo's SNES classic. Regardless of whether Chair has paid homage or simply ripped off winning ideas, the most succinct way to describe "Shadow Complex" is "Super Metroid, but shorter and easier." Yet in many ways, we now have the game some of the most unapologetic "Super Metroid" fans expected as the series' next logical evolution.
Save points are frequent and forgiving. Your handy flashlight highlights destructible objects that usually house hidden items on the other side. A blue line on the map defines the quickest path to the next critical moment or item. Finally (and this may raise some ire among the more hardcore "Metroid" fans), achieving 100 percent completion has become significantly easier thanks to the marking of every square hiding an item on the map with a question mark. When I said "easier," I wasn't kidding.
Mastering "Shadow Complex" should take little effort, and players can choose how easy or challenging to make the game for themselves from there on out. Choosing one of the four levels of difficulty is the simplest way to accomplish this, but the game also lends itself well to speed runs, and if people could figure out how to beat "Super Metroid" at 100 percent in under one hour, surely the achievement of doing the same for "Shadow Complex" cannot be far behind.
You can burn a couple more hours in the included set of Proving Grounds challenges — the game's equivalent of a puzzle mode. Using a limited set of abilities, you'll have to reach the exit of each room to punch in record times. You might have to freeze moving platforms in place with the foam gun, or use your ability to run at sonic speed to traverse walls and ceilings. None of them are too deviously difficult to figure out, so the drive to keep re-trying them is to climb the online leader boards.
Some glitches provide moments of unintended hilarity, but most of the ones in "Shadow Complex" are of the intrusive and interruptive sort. Imagine fighting a final boss whose health bar never depletes, getting stuck inside geometry or spontaneously warping into rooms without exits, and you'll have a pretty good idea. Chair continues to roll out patches, but for now, play at your own risk.
Although probably not destined to go down as a classic like the games that inspired it, "Shadow Complex" replicates their formulas admirably in a scaled down, $15 package. In spite of its technical flaws and cookie-cutter fiction, you might find yourself unable to tear yourself away from the controller for the entire ride.